NOTE: I started this a few days ago, then decided it was dumb and put it aside. It may still be dumb, but it does seem relevant to how I think about the issues raised by Frank’s posting of Elder Eyring’s talk, and, I think it’s tangentially related to Nate’s Blogscar-nominated “On Authority” (for which you should all go vote at Intellecxhibitionist [sic]). And, alas, it should now be revised to begin, “My second-most-recent scuffle…”
My latest scuffle with the longsuffering John Fowles has me thinking again about how to explain myself to people who think about the Church differently than I do, even if we feel similarly about it. In her great essay “Lusterware,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich describes her surprise when a friend sent her a letter describing her recent realization that “the Church is only 90% divine, and the other 10% is human.” Laurel says in the essay (I’m paraphrasing now, because I can’t find the book) that she would put the percentage of divinity lower, and the human input much higher, but that an institution that is even 10% divine is worth clinging to with might.
I think that we all come to our contemplations of the Church with different underlying assumptions about just how much divinity is involved in the workings of the Church as an institution. Unfortunately, these assumptions are rarely articulated, so that someone like Laurel’s friend, who believes God to be minutely involved in *most* of the day-to-day machinations of the Church might well be horrified by the musings of someone like Laurel (or me) who thinks that the Church operates largely as a human institution, with wonderful and miraculous, but occasional, direct intervention by God.
Lots of factors go into our view of the institutional church. Off the top of my head I can think of these:
1)Temperament–some people are constitutionally more able to accept authority than others. If you don’t believe me, come visit and observe my two older children sometime–my second child routinely answers requests with “OK, Mom”; if those words come out of my firstborn’s mouth, I call the pediatrician immediately, as I can be certain he is quite ill. Authority and institutions are just less galling to some people than to others, and I suspect that people to whom accepting authority comes easily and naturally are far more comfortable with the notion of godly bureaucracies than people with the opposite disposition. (I leave it as an exercise for you, gentle readers, to guess whose DNA might be responsible for my oldest child’s, um, independence.)
2) Familiarity–in my (admittedly limited and biased) observation, it’s somewhat more common for lifelong members of the church to be comfortable speaking of the church as an earthly institution. Having grown up (or become long accustomed) to the stable presence of the Church in one’s life makes it easier to be unthreatened by a consideration of what is less-than-perfect about it. People like my mother, on the other hand, who found the Church later in life and experienced it as rescuing them from their bleaker life without it, are more inclined to be defensive, and to view any criticism of the institution as an attempt to tear it down. It’s the difference between loving the cousin who grew up across the street from you, and cherishing your dearest friend who has not always lived close by.
3) Experience with leadership–I’ve had the opportunity to observe church leaders (at least local ones) with some regularity. My dad and most of my uncles have been in bishoprics and branch and stake presidencies for much of my life. My little brother is now a bishop (I still can hardly type that without chuckling a bit–he’s a great kid, but he’s my *little* brother). In particular, my dad was a bishop when I was a tween and young teen, and I wonder if my heightened adolescent awareness of his flaws as a parent didn’t also make my hyperconscious of his missteps as a bishop. I’ve been lucky enough to also be friends with many of my church leaders, and to hear them speak honestly and sometimes self-critically about their struggles and their failures as well as their successes. Being close to the human beings involved in church governance makes it easier (for better or worse) to be cognizant of the humanity of the process. I suspect that this is a factor in the common willingness to critique policy or practice at the local level, but to draw the line at any criticism of policies or pronouncements that come “from Salt Lake.” It’s easier to imagine that those farther away from you, whose human foibles you don’t see, are somehow involved in something more mysterious than what you’ve seen.
4) Distance–I know it will seem like I’m contradicting the point above, and perhaps I am, but I think distance can also make people think of church governance as a more human process. I’ve never been a bishop, and won’t be, and so the only way I can think about what it’s like is to imagine myself in my brother’s head. I can relate to him as a human being, but I can’t really relate to him as a bishop because I don’t know what it *feels* like to wear that mantle. I have to think of him as my-brother-only-a-little-more-inspired, because I just don’t have any other framework; the-bishop-who-used-to-be-my-brother might be more apt, but I don’t have any way to know what that means. Similarly, I have to think of his inspiration-seeking as something like my own all-too-human wrestling for it, although it may be a completely different process for him. Perhaps it is a mark of monstrous egocentricity that I want to understand leaders’ revelation by imagining what it would be like to receive that revelation myself. In any case, the fact that I can’t quite imagine it seems to be, for me, a barrier to thinking of the process as different and less humanly complicated than my own strivings.
5) Negative experiences: people who’ve had really bad experiences with church leaders often revise their estimate of the divinity involved in the day-to-day workings of the church downward, as a sanity-saving measure. Since many (most?) people who have really bad (I’m talking *really* bad–life-alteringly bad, not just “I’m offended” bad) experiences end up leaving, the ones who stay may end up sounding like disaffected cranks or apostates to people who have had mostly or exclusively good experiences with their leaders and obeying their leaders’ counsel.
I’m not sure exactly, what I hope to convey with all this navel-gazing (although I confess to taking some sick pleasure in the thought of Nate and Frank writhing in autobiography-and-pop-psychobabble-induced agonies while reading). Until we have some sort of chip implanted in our hands, that can transfer the relevant details of our experiences to our interlocutors when we shake hands, perhaps the best we can do is to take stock of our own responses, figure out if we’re 90-10 folks, or 50-50, or 5-95, and allow the possibility that other members of the church with equally strong testimonies of the gospel may have different ways of understanding how the divine principles they believe in translate into institutional practice.